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Preserving slice of Montreal life
Civic heritage supporters, art deco lovers protest against demolition of Ben's
The Gazette

Former Ben's employee Charles Mendoza (right) and filmmaker Tim Rideout speak to protesters outside Ben's restaurant.
Former Ben's employee Charles Mendoza (right) and filmmaker Tim Rideout speak to protesters outside Ben's restaurant.

The food was going downhill for years at Ben's Delicatessen, but for many it didn't matter. It's an institution, part of the city's charm and history.

About 50 people gathered at noon yesterday outside the now-empty building at Metcalfe St. and de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. to protest against its impending demolition.

Most were Montrealers who want to preserve yet another piece of the city's threatened heritage.

Former longtime employees waxed nostalgic about what a fun place it used to be - packed at lunchtime and into the night, a place to be and be seen.

Ben's was the great equalizer: Manufacturers and drifters, intellectuals and showgirls, students, transvestites and musicians - all sat at its Formica counter or tables for smoked meat, fries and pickles, washed down with a cherry Coke.

A lengthy labour conflict led the owners to shut the restaurant for good in December.

SIDEV Realty Corp. bought the building from the family of restaurant founder Ben Kravitz and plans to build a boutique hotel on the site. The deal is to be finalized Monday.

The demonstrators said they want the three-storey brick structure with picture windows, built in the Streamlined Modern style in the early 1950s, to be declared a heritage building.

But for the moment, this is not in the cards, SIDEV president Sam Benatar said.

"Until proven otherwise, the building is neither patrimonial nor historic," he said. "Structurally, we cannot keep the building as it is to build a hotel there of 12 or 15 storeys."

But plenty of Montrealers think otherwise.

The building is very simple but it still has many qualities, architect Joseph Baker noted.

"What is remarkable are the associations attached to it, and you have to conserve those values," Baker said.

Heritage Montreal spokesperson Dinu Bumbaru said the significance is the interior and its relationship to the street.

"The developer should realize he's got a jewel on his hands. Why not make the building grow rather than replace it?" he said.

Marilyn Karr, daughter of architect C. Davis Goodman, who designed the building, wants to see her father's work preserved.

"I don't like to see the building he built, with all the art deco features in it, demolished to put up another building that will look like every other building on the street," Karr said.

She pointed to the faux-marble terrazzo flooring. "We'll never see that again - the money it costs to put down a floor like that is phenomenal."

Sandra Cohen-Rose, of Art Deco Montreal, a group that strives to preserve art deco structures, also praised the deli's interior.

"It hasn't changed a bit since it was built. The counter has wonderful stainless steel, a marvellous juxtaposition with the traditional terrazzo," she said. "There is no reason we cannot recycle this building, a living memory that tells stories."

Klezmer musician Josh (So Called) Dolgin played his accordion to underline the cultural link of smoked meat - a Romanian delicacy - to the city's life. "We should respect and honour our roots and our ancestors and not just destroy things," he said.

It's not about Ben's "overpriced sandwiches that were not very good," Dolgin stressed.

"It's about loving your culture, and old stuff that's beautiful. The building is unbelievable."

Ben's was a mecca for many celebrities, Cohen-Rose noted. "Pierre Trudeau came here, Bette Midler came here. It was a hangout for Leonard Cohen and others in the artistic community."

There were mixed reactions among passers-by.

Monique Lefebvre, an accountant, wants to see it preserved, but Nancy Savard, who works in payroll at a software company, said: "The restaurant is closed, so I don't see the point."

Dan Dorey, who works in real estate, also was not impressed. "Ben's was an institution, but the building itself does not strike me as something that marks the Montreal landscape," he said.

But Gurmukh Masand, maitre d' at Ben's for 21 years, lamented: "This was my second home. ... A lot of memories here."

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007


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